Christie Signs Bill Giving Rutgers Most of UMDNJ’s Campus & All of Its Debt

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Gov. Chris Christie and NJ Senate Pres. Steven Sweeney paid a short visit to the Rutgers Student Center on College Ave. Wednesday for an invite-only ceremony to celebrate the signing of a bill that will effectively end the existence of the University of Medicine & Dentistry of NJ (UMDNJ) after 42 years.

The bill, a product of at least two years of compromises and conflicts, dictates that seven of the eight schools in the UMDNJ system will be absorbed by Rutgers University by July 1, 2013.  Rutgers will also get stuck with the troubled med school's $600+ million in debt.

Those seven schools, including the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and the Cancer Institute of NJ, will become the foundation of a new "Rutgers School of Biomedical and Health Sciences."  The schools are located across Newark, New Brunswick, and Piscataway.

UMDNJ's School of Osteopathic Medicine, however, will not join the Rutgers system, and will instead be given to Rowan University, against the wishes of much of the student body.  That school is located in Stratford Township.

University Hospital, the main feature of the Newark campus, will become "a separate instrumentality of the State of New Jersey with a to-be-established public-private partnership," according to UMDNJ's interim President Denise Rodgers.

The idea of merging UMDNJ with Rutgers is not a new one; twice in the past decade, Governors have tried and failed to restructure the higher education institutions of New Jersey.

In fact, UMDNJ is itself the product of a restructuring that took place over 40 years ago.  It was created when the legislature passed a law in 1970 that merged the four-year-old Rutgers Medical School with a Newark-based school to create what has since been the premiere medical education institution in the state.

Folding at least a part of UMDNJ's operations back into Rutgers University came under serious consideration once again following a report issued by a Christie-appointed task force.

The NJ Higher Education Task Force, chaired by former Republican Gov. Thomas Kean, issued its 133-page report just before the end of 2010.  It recommended that three of UMDNJ's schools leave to join Rutgers, much to the chagrin of UMDNJ's then-President William Owen.

But over the course of 2011, something changed Owen's mind.

As we reported last December, Owen abruptly switched his position and began supporting a takeover or merger with Rutgers, before leaving the UMDNJ presidency prematurely, six months before his contract was up.

That change, coupled with the retirements of Rutgers President Richard McCormick, and Rowan University President Donald Farish, opened the door to an even larger restructuring where Rowan nearly took over Rutgers' only South Jersey campus.

With only lame duck or interim presidents at the helm of the three schools, Christie and other elected officials began hashing out the details of a complex and wide-ranging merger deal that would force Rutgers to part with its Camden campus in exchange for the medical school.

Rowan University, formerly Glassboro State University, was in the process of opening a medical school of its own in Camden, and had hoped to absorb the nearby Rutgers University satellite campus.

George Norcross, an unelected political boss who controls many legislators from Southern New Jersey and serves as Chairman at the hospital that partnered with Rowan, is widely believed to have masterminded the takeover deal.

His brother Donald, a State Senator, sponsored the plan in the legislature, where it enjoyed support from other elected Democrats under the grasp of George including the leader of the Senate, Mr. Sweeney.

For the first time, the public learned of the controversial proposal for Rowan to take over the Camden campus of Rutgers on January 25, 2011.

That day, a new report was released, this one by a Christie-appointed ad hoc committee charged with fixing UMDNJ, as we reported in January.

Rutgers would then have focused exclusively on meeting the education needs of Northern New Jersey, while Rowan, also in debt, would have bolstered their balance sheet thanks to the new assets that would have been given to the small school.

But students, faculty, staff, and the Rutgers Board of Trustees fought the plan and eventually succeeded in keeping control of the Camden campus.  The bill that Christie signed Wednesday merely creates an advisory board to encourage collaboration between Rowan and Rutgers-Camden.

Though the most offensive part of the deal was scuttled, the fear that a merger or name change could make for less valuable diplomas and weaker faculty caused a steep decline in applications to the school's presitigious law program.

In March, Christie made national headlines for calling a military veteran and Rutgers-Camden student an "idiot" after he spoke against the takeover proposal at a "town hall" event.

For his part, Rutgers-Camden Chancellor Wendell Pritchett carefully came out against the deal, and President McCormick eventually joined him in opposition.

In April, an email from McCormick was leaked to the press that detailed his outrage at a secret report commissioned by Rowan that laid out a campaign to take over the RU-Camden campus.

The report, "Establishing the New Rowan University" anticipated strong public opposition and potential legal action against the plan, but it encouraged Rowan and its backers to more or less ignore both.

Although the report is dated just one day after the UMDNJ Advisory Committee report, it was clearly commissioned months in advance, increasing suspicion of a "backroom deal."

Despite the report's advice to ride out criticism and respond to opposition in a "low-key" manner, public opposition was overwhelming enough to drastically alter the deal and prevent Rowan from taking over the campus and its 4,400 students.

School administrators and state legislators continued to work out the details behind the scenes, hurrying towards an arbitrary July 1 deadline set by the Governor.  Traditionally, the legislature goes on vacation for the months of July and August and this year was no exception.

With legislators in the dark on the costs of the re-organization, the plan rapidly morphed into various forms to appease concerned political actors.

At different points, the bill called for varying levels of autonomy for Rutgers' Newark and Camden campuses, and an expanded Rutgers Board of Governors by adding more gubernatorially appointed positions.

At one point, an assemblyman announced he had built up enough opposition to stop the deal, but he later lost two of his colleagues from the voting bloc.

But in the end, the 128-page bill mostly divided up the remains of UMDNJ and left Rutgers and Rowan largely unchanged, including their governing structure.

The deal, known as the "Medical and Health Sciences Education Restructing Act," passed the New Jersey Assembly by a vote of 61-17 and the State Senate by a vote of  29-10.

New Brunswick's representatives in the Assembly were split, with former City Councilman Joe Egan voting for the bill, and his running mate Upendra Chivukula voting against.  Chivukula, of Franklin Township, is currently camapigning for US Congress.

State Senator Bob Smith, who represents New Brunswick, Piscataway, and four other towns, spoke forcefully against the deal before it was passed.

It was not the Senate's "finest moment," he said, when the Finance Committee approved the bill without knowing the cost.

At the invite-only event on Wednesday, Smith's ally Assemblyman Jon Wisniewski was not invited despite sponsoring the bill, according to a report on PolitickerNJ.com.

However, New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill, an alum of both Glassboro State University and Rutgers who supports Smith, stood with Christie as he signed the bill.  Cahill's spokesman said he was not in the office Friday to provide a comment on the legislation.

But Wisniewski wasn't the only one left out of the celebration.  Notably absent from the bill signing were any actual students.

Over a dozen students from universities around the state came to protest the decision with signs that said "How much did this cost again?" and "When did Students Get a Say?"

The Governor's staff refused to let them in.  They also refused access to NewBrunswickToday.com.

Even the newly-elected student body President John Connelly and representatives of the faculty union were kept out of the ceremony.

A representative of Rutgers Student Life, which operates the student center, said it was not her decision who was given access to the event, and could not say whether the room had been rented for a fee.

Christie and Sweeney left the signing ceremony through a back door where they faced about a dozen protestors.  Together, they sped off to the Rutgers campus in Newark for a similar celebration.

 

Charlie is a community organizer, a Rutgers journalism graduate, and a 2018 independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick.

He can be reached at (732) 993-9697 or [email protected]